Motorized Recreationists Challenge Pike-San Isabel NF Travel Plan: Guest Post By Patrick McKay

Patrick McKay is a board member of Colorado Offroad Enterprise (CORE) and Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders.

The author’s Jeep on the currently open section of the Hackett Gulch trail in Wildcat Canyon.

 

In September 2022, the Pike San Isabel National Forest (PSICC) in Colorado published the long awaited final decision for its controversial new travel management plan. The final decision closed approximately 123 miles of currently open motorized routes, plus multiple other routes that were temporarily closed under previous actions that will now be permanently closed. While this amounted to only a 4% net reduction in total open route mileage, these closures were disproportionately concentrated in the three ranger districts closest to the front range cities of Denver and Colorado Springs and affected several of the most popular four-wheel-drive trails in the forest. Some of the closed routes had been featured in published guidebooks and regarded as destination trails for decades, yet the Forest Service deemed them to have no recreational value and closed them. As a result, the quality of motorized recreation opportunities in the region has been severely diminished.

The motorized recreation community in Colorado is extremely disappointed with this outcome and feels that our interests were almost completely ignored throughout the entire travel management process, which was driven from the start by extremist environmental groups and anti-motorized activists within the Forest Service itself. The Forest Service based its route designation decisions solely on inaccurate data that was gathered without public input in the 2015 Travel Analysis Process and on secretive ranger district input that was never disclosed to the public. All public comments that challenged the factual assumptions underpinning the forest’s analysis were ignored. While motorized advocates managed to save a handful of minor trails through the objection process, the Forest Service dismissed the majority of our objections regarding the most popular trails subject to closure. We were left with no choice but to challenge this flawed decision in court.

On February 14, 2023, Colorado Offroad Enterprise (CORE), of which I am a board member, filed a lawsuit challenging the forest’s decision to close 12 specific road segments. The complaint primarily focuses on five roads in Wildcat Canyon along the South Platte River, as well as seven other roads in the Kenosha Pass, Fairplay, and Rampart Range areas. You can download the complaint here and all exhibits filed with it here.

Our lawsuit is only the latest chapter in the long running controversy over the roads in Wildcat Canyon, the history of which I have described in a past blog post here. It is sad it has even come to this, as this situation was supposed to have been resolved back in 2004, when the Forest Service issued a decision allowing these roads (which had been temporarily closed since the Hayman Fire in 2002) to be reopened under county jurisdiction.

That decision was intended to be a compromise that would allow motorized users to continue using these popular trails while ensuring that they would be maintained to avoid negative impacts to the South Platte River. While easements were quickly granted for the roads in Teller County, the ink on the decision was barely dry before a group of activist staff within the South Park Ranger district (including the current district ranger) began working to undermine the deal. They delayed and ultimately thwarted its full implementation by convincing the Park County government to withdraw its application for an easement in 2015, after the South Park Ranger District had stonewalled it for seven years.

The result was that only half of the Wildcat Canyon trail network was reopened, while the other half in Park County remained closed, with its two major loops severed. While the roads in Teller County were well-maintained by motorized groups, the roads in Park County deteriorated because the Forest Service refused to allow any maintenance on them while their status was in limbo, even though they continued to be regularly driven by members of the public who were unaware they were closed at the county line. Those negative impacts were then cited as reasons to decommission the routes in the travel management process.

As documented in our lawsuit, the same activist Forest Service employees worked to keep the forest from conducting any NEPA analysis on reopening the roads in the travel management process, ensuring that the ultimate decision to decommission them was predetermined. They also made multiple attempts to illegally decommission and obliterate the roads while the travel management process was still pending, being stopped only when other Forest Service employees pointed out their plans were unlawful. In the words of one such employee, “If our leadership wants to know why the motorized community does not want to cooperate with the forest service, this is a great example of why they don’t trust us. I don’t blame them for their outrage.”

One of the central themes of our lawsuit is the way the Forest Service abused the Travel Analysis Process (TAP) to generate unsupported and blatantly false route data which was then used to determine route designations in the travel management process with no public input allowed. According to Forest Service policy, the Travel Analysis Process is supposed to be a separate process from travel management. It is intended to generate baseline data that can be used to inform future travel management processes, not dictate their outcomes. Forest Service policy requires rigorous public involvement in both stages of the process, and specifically requires that the public be allowed to be given input in actual route designation decisions.

In the case of the Pike San Isabel National Forest, each ranger district produced its own travel analysis report around 2015, in which they assigned a range of risk and benefit scores to each route segment evaluated. These scores, which included things like recreational use benefit and wildlife risk, were based largely off of GIS data and the personal knowledge of district staff. These scores were later run through a formula to determine the ultimate designation of each route in the travel management process, with high value routes being retained as part of the “minimum road system” and low value routes being closed.

Each travel analysis report was subject to a 30 day public comment period which was not widely publicized and received only a handful of comments, in contrast to the thousands of comments received during each of the comment periods for the travel management process. Because of the forest’s failure to seek the input of motorized recreationists who actually use the trails, the many inaccuracies in the travel analysis reports were only discovered during the travel management process. Yet the forest chose to ignore all public comments challenging route designations based on inaccurate travel analysis scores, stating that decisions based on the TAP scores were not open to revision. Moreover, any route-specific recommendations included in the TAP reports by ranger district staff were automatically adopted in the preferred alternative regardless of their merit, and all public comments calling for different outcomes were ignored.

As argued in our lawsuit, the PSICC essentially treated the TAP reports as a dispositive travel management decision rather than a preliminary information gathering step, and then attempted to unlawfully “tier to” those documents to avoid having to conduct any real NEPA analysis of the impacts of individual routes in the travel management process. District staff were able to use the TAP scores and recommendations to largely predetermine the outcome of the travel management process, in blatant violation of NEPA and Forest Service policy. In the case of the roads in Wildcat Canyon, activist district staff manipulated the process by giving the roads blatantly false recreational benefit scores, ranking them as low benefit despite explicit findings in two prior NEPA processes that these roads had extremely high recreational value. Most of the other roads cited in our lawsuit were likewise given absurdly low recreational benefit scores, dooming them to unjustified closure.

The proper way for forests to determine their “minimum road system” (MRS) as required by the Travel Management Rule has always been a murky question with no clear answer. The PSICC claimed in its decision that the MRS was essentially determined by the TAP, even though Forest Service policy states that it is determined by the travel management process. Should our case go to trial, it will be (to the best of my knowledge) the first time the extent to which the travel analysis process can be relied upon for travel management has ever been litigated.

We believe it is clear that the PSICC violated NEPA and NFMA in multiple significant ways, not the least of which involved road closures in Wildcat Canyon that the forest itself had previously determined would violate the forest plan. As we know from internal emails we received, even some Forest Service employees considered the shenanigans the forest was trying to pull regarding some of these roads shameful.

I’m interested to hear the thoughts of people in this community on the forest’s actions here. The underhanded way in which certain activist employees were able to rig the process to close a number of highly prized motorized trails should be concerning to all. Legalities aside, the forest’s actions have caused a total loss of trust within the motorized community that will make it considerably more difficult for them to obtain our cooperation in the future.

 

28 thoughts on “Motorized Recreationists Challenge Pike-San Isabel NF Travel Plan: Guest Post By Patrick McKay”

  1. Here’s my two cents..
    Attention.. this memory could be wrong! Please correct me if you remember something different.

    when I worked for the FS I heard about the settlement with the PSICC and the environmental groups. As I recall, the Supe had agreed in the settlement to do more analysis. I wondered about this as our OGC folks often told us to do more analysis, based on a precedent in the court case. I wondered whether “settling” points for DOJ were in tension with the workers who would end up doing more analysis across the country. So I asked whether the WO had been involved and the answer was that they weren’t really but didn’t care. This seemed very different from the WO Lands and Minerals who did care about precedents.

    So .. this has been going on for a long time.. and is no closer to being settled. So I wonder what it would take for an agreement to be reached and to be final, and whether somehow it could have occurred more readily than ? 20 years of decisions and litigation.

    Checked out the emails..reminds me of the old days. Lots of drama and intrigue, and the NEPA folks… lookin’ good!

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  2. I’m all for the latest challenge! All too often, the motorized community must try to “catch up” to those organizations who have paid representatives to attend the meetings and/or have the uphill battle with forest service employees who have little use for a motorized travel system.

    The “4%” mentioned is a bit misleading too. The PSICC was already a “closed” Forest; meaning, the open floor concept of many other Forests was not available to begin with. I truly am an expert individual who believes in multiple use, but not at the expense of damage to resources.

    Let’s see a compromise unfold, and do the right thing!

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    • Jim Z..
      I’m interested in how you think about things compared to me..
      “not at the expense of damage to resources” what use doesn’t have damage to resources? Ski areas, hiking and biking trails and so on.
      You also said “do the right thing” to me that’s clear process-wise (follow the law and regulations) but not so clear outcome-wise. That part’s all pretty gray to me. And yet I hear many past line officers talk about it as if it were absolutely clear what the “right” decision was.
      Chief Thomas used to say “tell the truth and obey the law”.
      The laws leave a great deal of flexibility, and within that, how do you tell what is “right”?

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    • Sharon, a fair question(s): After I reread my post of course I realized I mistyped a word, but no matter….

      “Not at the expense of resource damage” – most damage can be mitigated by one means or another; that which cannot I would put to the Pinchot Principles, that hang/have hung in many a ranger’s office. I use the rules of Pinchot’s Principles and NOT Pinchot’s Ten Commandments! Even now, common sense, as it relates to managing public lands is not out of style.

      “Do the right thing”. Again, I refer back to Pinchot’s Principles. As a ranger, I was hoodwinked by a sitting Forest Supervisor that opened me to uncomfortable consequences and kind’a jaded my concept of doing the right thing, purposely lying to the public – over travel management, no less…. That one still burns!

      I bleed true green, ride for the brand, walk the talk and tell it (sometimes shooting my mouth off before I think) like it is, but do believe in the work of caring for the land and serving people! Where have I heard that before? Hmmmm, I’d better study on that a spell…. Oh well, there is always the greatest good…..

      I think your point on Line Officers perspective is spot on . Maybe because we were able to see all sides; the good, the bad and the ugly. Maybe, just maybe, because we were accountable, our approach to decisions required us to separate the fly poop from the pepper….. You know, like a good Planner….

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  3. I like to ohv. It was nice to go to the San Juans where many roads are open. Also like Lake county Leadville where OHVs can be driven on gravel county roads. Maybe wrong , I thought local people would not want OHVs in some counties. I think the FS wants to focus on hiking

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  4. Following. I’ve seen corrupt practices play out on every Forest Plan and Travel Plan in Montana. I know of one restriction on the Custer-Gallatin NF that is so blatantly, clumsily discriminatory it deserves litigation. Remarks about good will and trust being difficult to restore are very much on point. From what I’ve witnessed, perpetrators don’t often see their actions as wrong, but virtuous.

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    • That’s a kind of philosophical/moral issue:

      “The means must be as pure as the end, for in the long run of history, immoral destructive means cannot bring about moral and constructive ends.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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  5. I’m primarily a non-motorized user, although I will use 4×4 roads to access good hiking areas. That said, I’m also a multiple use advocate, but that doesn’t mean all uses on all acres as some people like to interpret the concept. Compromises need to be made by all sides and often the “extremists” on all sides just don’t want to do that. The lack of public participation mentioned by Patrick is concerning, but not all that surprising. It was something I was very outspoken about on the Rio Grande NF and was fortunate enough to have the support of the Forest Supervisor to never allow a line officer or project lead bury a proposed project in the Legals section of the paper of record. I’ve also witnessed my share of “activist” employees on all sides of motorized use. So, I guess what I am saying is I sympathize with Patrick as I understand his concerns when he feels like the motorized community isn’t being heard.

    Travel management is often the most controversial management challenge on a national forest. There is a lot of public passion for favorite recreational uses. National forests are often caught in difficult situations not just with trying to meet public demand, but also with balancing uses to reduce user conflicts, protecting resources, meeting demands from higher levels to reduce miles of roads, and reduced budgets that impact USFS maintenance and the number of personnel able to manage volunteers and special use maintenance agreements with organized user groups. The latter part of this list, direction to reduce miles and inadequate budgets/personnel, often goes unsaid publicly by Forest Service personnel because they are muzzled by the Washington Office. I have witnessed people being reprimanded for this and I, personally, have been reprimanded by the WO via the RO for something I didn’t write, but I edited.

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    • Mike- I thought the RG and BLM had gone in with an NGO, or split costs? to hire a volunteer coordinator?

      We heard from the Chief a few weeks ago that with the IRA and BIL the FS needed to do major $ agreements with entities to get the work done because they had money and not enough people.
      If NGOs want to provide money and people, what’s the problem?

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      • Sharon, you are correct, I supervised the position. One volunteer coordinator being shared by a BLM field office and a national forest can’t come close to doing all the work needed. I can’t speak to the current situation, only to what it was like prior to my retirement four years ago. The volunteer coordinator does not administer special use permits outside of volunteer agreements. Also, special use permits require on the ground inspections, which require forest service personnel. And while fire staffing has increased, other staffing has stayed level or decreased over the last 10 years.

        Each administration has different priorities. One cuts funding and programs and then another comes in and throws money at programs and says get it done. As you know, hiring is a slow process, so it takes time for a forest to ramp up to have the personnel needed and trained to do the work, even if it is just to administer special use permits.

        Forests, or at least the one I was on, was being told to reduce the number of miles of system roads. 4×4 roads are system roads. So, if road miles are being reduced, whatever is closed will be someone’s favorite road. At least that is my experience. What I am most concerned about with Patrick’s post is the lack of public outreach with travel management decisions. In contrast to the picture Patrick paints about the PSICC, the RGNF said at a public meeting in 2006 they would start travel management planning within two years. Here it is 2023 and it hasn’t happened, although the forest will have to start over-the-snow travel management soon per recent settlement agreement tied to forest plan litigation.

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        • Mike, the Rio Grande National Forest actually has a lot of the same issues. They also did their Travel Analysis Process around 2015 (I think there was some kind of regional mandate for all forests to do it around then), and theirs is even worse than the Pike San Isabel’s. It recommends closing over 600 miles of roads in the forest which it says are “likely not needed as part of the MRS”, which includes 45% of the ML2 roads that are most valuable to motorized recreation.

          One thing that struck me is their recreational use benefit scores only considered whether a route lead to an important destination, while the Pike San Isabel at least ostensibly considered the recreational experience of driving the road itself. As a result the Rio Grande NF’s TAP report recommends closing even more high value roads than the PSI, including roads like Medano and Pass and Hayden Pass which are two of the most popular 4×4 roads in the forest and the only two roads that cross the Sangre De Cristo range other than the paved highway over La Veta Pass. As best I can tell, they also did not seek any public involvement in the TAP process.

          If the Rio Grande NF did the same thing the Pike San Isabel did and just took their TAP and implemented it wholesale through travel management, it would be an absolute disaster, far worse than the Pike San Isabel travel plan. That’s actually one reason we are challenging the PSI’s reliance on the TAP report, to prevent the Rio Grande from doing the same. While it doesn’t appear the Rio Grande intends to start summer travel planning anytime soon (looks like at this point they’ll be doing winter travel planning first), they are apparently planning to do it at some point, and we really don’t want them basing that on the 2015 TAP (which will be seriously outdated by the time they start anyway).

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          • Patrick, I couldn’t agree with you more on all your points about the Rio Grande process. I was the public affairs specialist and on the forest leadership team (FLT) at the time and I spoke up about the lack of public involvement. If I remember correctly, and I may not, I was told that the TAP process was cookbook and technical, and the public could see it when it was completed. I told the FLT this was going to blow up in our face.

            As I said earlier, the RGNF has been kicking the travel management planning can down the road since 2006. The last promise made to the public was the forest would start travel management planning right after the forest plan was completed. The FMP is locked up in court at the moment, but my understanding is the forest made a side settlement to begin winter travel management planning.

            One thing to consider when taking on the RGNF concerning travel management planning and the TAP is the forest is one of the poorest forests in the nation based on dollars/acre. Pretty much everything is done with a skeleton crew compared to many other national forests. Employees are burned out. So all I’m suggesting is to have some understanding of the challenges the forest faces, but hold their feet to the fire.

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          • Good information Mike. I appreciate your insights. We’ll certainly be keeping an eye on how things develop with the RGNF. That’s a good reminder to me as well to try to spend more time exploring the trails there to build up my knowledge of them, as that’s the forest I’ve spent the least amount of time in because it’s one of the farthest from Denver.

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          • Sharon, it was actually a partial settlement. The FS settled the plaintiffs’ claims about snowmobiling by agreeing to start winter travel planning, but their other claims (mostly about lynx and other endangered species) weren’t settled and will go to trial.

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          • Sharon, “side settlement” is my very poor made up term. It did not settle the entire lawsuit, but it did take care of one part of it. At least that is how I understood the article where I read about it. I can’t remember where I read the article, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was up on SLV Ecosystem Council’s website. I don’t have time to research it at the moment, I have a ton of work to do around here before heading off on a trip.

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  6. “The proper way for forests to determine their “minimum road system” (MRS) as required by the Travel Management Rule has always been a murky question with no clear answer. The PSICC claimed in its decision that the MRS was essentially determined by the TAP, even though Forest Service policy states that it is determined by the travel management process.”

    I agree with all of this. Including that it has been “murky.” To me it’s a question of whether the the MRS is information or a decision. The FS likes to call things information when it can, and it’s arguably possible to interpret the Travel Management Rule that way. Here is its definition of the MRS (36 C.F.R. §212.5(b)(1):

    “The minimum system is the road system determined to be needed to meet resource and other management objectives adopted in the relevant land and resource management plan (36 CFR part 219), to meet applicable statutory and regulatory requirements, to reflect long-term funding expectations, to ensure that the identified system minimizes adverse environmental impacts associated with road construction, reconstruction, decommissioning, and maintenance.”

    They could focus on the purpose of “identifying unneeded roads,” and portray this as a technical administrative decision with no alternatives, and I’m sure they did not want this process to become another planning level with its own NEPA (in addition to travel planning). But there are alternatives, especially to “minimize environmental impacts,” so to me, it only made sense if the minimum road system were established through the NEPA process associated with travel planning.

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  7. I have worked for the FS for 15 years and there has in my experience been a real problem with employees biased toward “protection” and against multiple use mandates in the laws. There is a ridiculous culture of pandering to and coddling employees, fed by fear of supervisors about grievances and an unwillingness to support first line supervisors taking corrective action. The regulatory agencies gladly play along, to the point of where employees who do not have a certain job title are forbidden from contacting these other agencies. I look forward to seeing the courts shine a light on this problem. It’s very much hurt the mission and taken away public recreation opportunities in a substantial way.

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  8. Mike and Patrick, you both have hit on the main issue surrounding Travel Management! Many employees have never seen a motorized road or trail they like. Most environmental groups think likewise. These pro-motorized groups have had enough, taken a stance to be treated equitably and are going to meet the naysayers in Court. Finally……

    These two Forests are only a subset of Agency players who look to be a bit loose with the TMR (my opinion). I certainly get the worn out employees; a good friend and long-time ranger friend of mine always said to get anything done, you saddle the racehorses. But, even the racehorses give out.

    A more workable solution is to level the playing field (almost impossible) and find common ground (easy peasy)….

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  9. During the time period of Obama’s Great Outdoors Initiative, probably around 2011 or so, a friend attended a Forest Service hosted public forum in Missoula that attempted to address public concerns and hopes surrounding our president’s fleeting concept. My friend was chatting after with an agency employee, a planner of some type, and he effectively asked how do planners decide who they listen to and how are their decisions made. She told him that they listen to those who file lawsuits, which was and still is primarily the environmental NGOs. I thought this candid admission rather informative, still holding true today.

    Recreation groups lack legal competence and adequate budgets and can’t keep pace with environmental lawsuits. Couple that with agency employees that manipulate planning process with impunity to achieve a variety of personal agendas. Additionally, the Wilderness Act requires planners to locate and recommend land for potential wilderness, but in kind no such act exists to identify high value recreational areas or corridors. The lack of recreational mandate and lack of consistent measurement criteria has opened the door for planners to trivialize recreation access importance, by closing access to motorized and bicyclists, cramming all manner of people into ever smaller locations. It’s a form of discrimination. Across the nation, thousands of recreational experiences have been removed from public option over the past 20 or so years. We could really use an organic act for recreation, to carefully and consistently measure and assign value to many lost recreational roads, trails, viewpoints, camping locations. Measurements should be equal in value to criteria that measures wilderness character. Because so many locations are now closed, I believe that when such an act is ever passed, it should be made retroactive, effectively an order to reexamine all Recommended Wilderness and Wilderness since 2000 or perhaps earlier. Many closed areas incorporate former important recreation trails and were done so because planners lacked recreational measurement criteria.

    What Patrick has attempted to express illustrates to me the need for an Organic Act for recreation. We really don’t want more laws and regulation, but in the face of predecisional bias becoming embedded in virtually every travel plan and forest plan in the nation, those that value recreation also deserve relief from planning abuses.

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    • I absolutely agree Greg. Other multiple uses of federal lands like wildlife, wilderness, etc. have actual substantive legal protections, while recreation does not. Even though it’s named as one of the primary multiple uses in the NFMA, in reality it takes a back seat to everything else. Given that recreation is now the primary use of public lands and is the use that most directly benefits the American public, it’s high time it had actual statutory protection through its own organic act.

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      • Patrick, when and how has it been determined that recreation has become the top use of National Forests? Is this an announcement that can be researched online?

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        • I don’t mean recreation is primary in any kind of official sense. It’s more just the de facto reality that recreation is predominant human use of national forests by pretty much any measure – economic impact, the number of people engaged in it, the amount of land used for it, etc. Logging and other forms of resource extraction are basically non-existent these days, and grazing is certainly still there but only benefits a tiny subset of the population. In common public perception, national forests exist primarily as places for people to engage in outdoor recreation.

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    • Patrick, I don’t have nearly enough knowledge of the situation to form my own opinion. I understand your perspective and concern about the inner workings of the forest service as I have witnessed some of what you have written about first hand. While the Colorado Sun article may do a good job describing the perspective of motorized users, I don’t feel it did a very good job of discussing the perspectives of those who want the roads closed. For example, the story states: “The science-based conservation group Wild Connections, which lobbied for the closure, applauded the decision…”, yet there are no quotes from the group’s staff. This ties back to another discussion we have been having in this forum on biased reporting. How are the readers of Colorado Sun going to truly understand the situation if other voices aren’t quoted? I expect more out of the Colorado Sun. Kudos to you, though, for getting your story out in the media.

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      • Agreed. Honestly I fully expected her to get a comment from some of the opposing groups like Wild Connections and even the Forest Service (though of course their response would have been something like “we can’t comment on pending litigation”). I’m kind of surprised she didn’t. I thought it was a basic principle of journalism to always present both sides. And given the Colorado Sun like most mainstream media has a pretty heavy liberal slant, I assumed she should give at least equal weight to the environmentalists’ side, but apparently not. So not the greatest example of neutral journalism, but it was nice having an article biased towards my side for once. =)

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      • Mike – I guess I see two things being covered.. the content (closing the roads) and the process (how the FS went about it). The lawsuit being about the process.

        To me the only people who have the story on why they used the process that they did is the FS; Wild Connections is in no place to (believably) have any more knowledge on that than anyone else. The FS does but.. they are under the litigation cone of silence, as always and to me that’s the reason the story is one-sided- or that almost all litigation stories are one-sided.

        Occasionally I have read the docs and talked to people and given the “FS side” on some litigated topic on The Smokey Wire, but it’s a lot of work, and unpaid, of course. I’ve often asked for someone else to “adopt” a litigated project, but so far have not found any volunteers :).

        So to me this story (and litigation) is a process story, and saying “OHV roads have bad environmental effects” won’t really add to the convo. It’s possible that Wild Connections could tell the FS side, but that would insinuate that they were in fact involved in the disputed process, which would support Patrick’s case.

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